Saturday, February 20, 2010

Original Art Stories: Brian Bolland's Missing 2000AD Artwork & The Sub-Culture Of Collecting

I'm not sure if I've used this phrase here, but I did coin it not that long ago (or perhaps I heard it, I'm not sure) and I felt it was as strong as any to begin this post: if the first casualty of war is the truth, then surely the first casualty of being a collector is integrity. There's more than one reason why I believe this to be the truth, and hopefully I can get a few of those points across here.

I love Brian Bolland's artwork, always have, most likely I always will. I've always wanted a Bolland original, I have a sketch on the wall, but an actual page would be bliss, however I'm not prepared to sacrifice what morals I do have left to own something that I know is stolen. Sadly others out there in the original art collecting world have no such scruples, and will not only purchase and deal in stolen art, but will go to great lengths to defend their stance and 'right' to do so. I can't fathom it myself, but then that's what clearly separates us all.

Part of my attraction to Bolland's art is 2000AD. As a young lad 2000AD was prevalent on the shelves at newsagents - after all it was British, and it seemed easier to get than American comics, which, when you consider the competition from the American originals versus the reprint titles, were schizophrenic at best. I could never quite figure out where one story began and another ended, and there was a period of time (hey - I was young) when I believed that Marvel, especially, were putting out multiple titles each month featuring some wild art from guys named Ditko, Kirby, Byrne, Starlin, Colan and Brunner. It wasn't until later that I discovered that the reprints were reprints and the colour comics were the originals. Unless the colour comic was also a reprint. It went a long way to making my head ache. But 2000AD wasn't a reprint - it was original. It had an Australian price tag on it, which meant I wasn't scratching my head trying to work out what the price really was, and the art was, well, stellar for the most part. I was enthralled by Carlos Ezquerra and Alan Grant's Strontium Dog, for example, but I was blown away by the likes of Mike McMahon, Dave Gibbons, Ian Gibson, Massimo Belardinelli (who's work on Dan Dare was exquisite), Kevin O'Neill (Ro-Busters - brilliant), Garry Leach, Cam Kennedy and a host of others, but above them all, for me, were the stories by John Wagner (using a host of aliases) and Brian Bolland. But, seriously, anything by Alan Grant, Alan Moore, Gibbons, O'Neill - frankly, almost all of it no matter who did it - was more than worth reading. I should start picking up the reprints.

And here's the dilemma - the reprints. A while back I picked up a few Dredd reprints on the cheap. One featured Alan Grant's newspaper Dredd strips and another featured Wagner and Bolland's classic strips, including the brilliantly sublime Judge Death series. Simply put I was in heaven and happy that, after all of the years that had passed between when I first saw it until now, the stories and art were still fresh and had lost none of their impact. Bolland's art was as crisp and powerful as I remembered, and Wagner's words seemed to have not aged a bit. Great stuff! So why did I find myself upset?

Not that long after I bought the reprint the amazing book, The Art Of Brian Bolland was released. I've been recommending this book to anyone and everyone I know, the point where I'm sure some people would rather it was never published. Packed with art and commentary, it's a template of what an book of it's kind should read, and it's impact upon me was immediate and took several forms. One of those forms was that I discarded what I was doing for my own book, The Art Of Norm Breyfogle, and totally revamped it. Another impact was that I got angry, very, very angry when I read the following page. What made me angrier was some of the public responses to Bolland's claims, but we'll cover that. In the meantime read this, as published in The Art Of Brian Bolland.
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Missing 2000AD Artwork
It had never been the policy of IPC or Fleetway (I confuse the two), publisher of 2000AD, to return artwork to the artist, but by now they were coming to terms with the fact that they were running out of space to store it and something had to give. There had been horrendous stories going round - like the one about the burst water pipe. Apparently some bright spark had had the idea of laying some of the art boards on the floor to soak up the standing water. The stuff they happened to pick was the sainted Frank Bellamys full color Neros the Spartan pages from the 1950s Eagle Comic. Priceless historical artwork ruined. They didn't particularly want it, but they'd be damned if anyone else was gonna get it. Now the company was thinking the unthinkable: Why not let the artists have it back - providing the artists catalogue their pages and pay for a new transparency of each one. Like giving a kid his ice-cream back and then wrapping him on the knuckles for his impudence in asking for it.

Artists started doing just that and coming away with piles of their pages. I was a bit busy, so I made a deal with Mike Lake at Titan for him to catalogue my pages (there were about 280 of them), pay for the crannies, collect the artwork and sell it for a commission. After a while became back to me with news that hell taken possession of about 160 pages, but the rest were missing.

Fortunately, I'd recently borrowed my favorite 10 pages - including the "Gaze into the fist of Dredd" one - for an exhibition in Angoulem and hadn’t got round to returning them - they're still safe with me - but unfortunately the remaining missing pages had been stolen. People from Titan, and more recently Quality Comics, had been given access to the artwork in order to reproduce them in their editions, so Fleetway had been used to people walking off with them. What they didn't know was that 110 pages of what they, at the time, considered to be their property had been lifted and had made its way into the hands of American art dealers. To me, it was the theft of artwork, some of which I would have kept, amounting to quite a few thousands of dollars.

I was furious. I talked to people in the London comic shops. One told me: Yes, he had seen some of those pages on US dealers tables, but when l asked him which dealer's tables he developed surprisingly abrupt amnesia and couldn't remember. Over the next few months I detected strands that stretched between UK publishers to people working for them and finally to their friends in the US, who just happened to be artwork dealers. And I developed the distinct impression that many of the people around me, some of whom I considered friends, who inhabited various corners of the comic world, knew part or all of the story, but had other friends they wanted to protect.

One or two Americans have informed me they bought some of the hot pages in good faith from people who were also squeaky-clean innocent parties. Recently, I heard a story that a page of my artwork has turned up in the vaults, but if I were to ask for it back the vault keeper would know who had told me and it would compromise that person special access privileges. Kafka-esque, or what?

All the pages that were returned to me and sold were signed by me. If you own one without my signature it was stolen and I want it back.
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Incredible, isn't it? In effect 110 pages of original Brian Bolland art had been stolen and was now being actively traded on the original art market. I expected more people to be upset and angry at this, and I did find quite a few who were, but there was an equal amount of collectors who, simply put, defended not only the art theft, but also the people dealing in the stolen art and attempted to place the blame for the theft onto one person: Brian Bolland. If you're not scratching your head in amazement then go no further. If you are confused and wondering how this happens, then read on.

On the Comicart-L (Yahoo list) the theft has been discussed more than once over the past few years. At times it frustrating discussing anything to do with art theft as there'll be quite a few people who are very vocal, in both directions, in regards to art theft. I can't see how it's justified, but then it's not art I'd buy out of principle. Other collectors have no such principles and see the art as a commodity to be dealt, with the view of increasing their net worth and 'standing' in the art community. If by 'standing' they wish to be known as thieves, then they're reaching their goal. Myself? I couldn't live with myself if I was walking past stolen art every day, but there you have it.

A few of the comments included (and these are direct comments, with no corrections), "I was told that the basement was cleared and the art thrown in a skip sometime in the early eighties, and some was recovered and sold at a comic convention. I dont see this as stolen."

"Oh please.....Its Neal Adams all over again. Does he have a list of these 110 pages that were 'stolen' from him? Or is that just a guess? Has there been any documentation up to the publication of this book, some 20 years on, that pages were indeed stolen? So if Bolland left his table at a show in the early 80s and someone bought a page while he was gone and didn't come back to have it signed, its now 'stolen'!!?? I frankly am not an interested party here since I own ZERO 2000AD art, but I find it a bit offensive that artists can just make these comments out of the blue and POOF!, we're supposed to just take their words...especially now that the art is worth real money."

"At least they stole quality stuff."

"...just make sure the Bolland artwork is signed by Brian in red ink lest we all become embroiled in a discussion of whether the page you are giving away (haha) is stolen."

"Stolen from the publisher doesn't ALWAYS add up to art stolen from the artist. Stolen from the publisher means the art was stolen from the publisher. If Bolland or anyone else had a work for hire type contract with the publisher, then the art legally belonged to the company. If the company chose to not to actively pursue thievery and decided to abandon the art, there's really nothing Bolland can do about it. I think too many people nowadays are anxious to apply today's standards to what was not the contractual arrangement in most cases between artists and companies in the past. Theft IS Theft. but only when it's stolen from the entity it LEGALLY belongs to. If that legal entity happens not to be the artist, then how's that stealing from the artist?"

And so on. It appeared that for every one person who tried to defend Bolland's right to have his art returned another would pop up and shoot them down. I'm sure that there were several dozen who never spoke, but it's the most vocal who are heard the most, not the silent majority.

In the case of Neal Adams, a cache of his art was stolen from DC Comics in the 1970s. Once Neal was alerted to it he had an article written, and published, in the first issue of Inside Comics in 1974, which is when the theft occurred. Read the article, it's incredible. Despite Adams making it known, with a list, that his art had been stolen, trade in the actual art only increased. One of the telling comments from the Adams' article is this one, "...the collector said it (a stolen Adams story) was being held in special care."

Special care? Surely the best care for it would be with Neal Adams? Apparently not. Adams ran an active campaign to get his art back and insisted that if anyone was caught with the art then they'd be charged with theft. This served to drive the art further underground. Eventually people would present art to Adams to be signed and claim ignorance to the true status of the art, and Neal began to be criticised, in public, by certain sections of the art collecting community, so he eventually gave up his hunt for his stolen artwork and simply asked that he be allowed to make a copy of the art for his own files, and that the art could be recorded. In effect the thieves won, Neal Adams lost.

I fully expect that Brian Bolland knows exactly what pages were stolen, as I'm sure he knows exactly who did it. I've heard a rumour as to who did actually steal the pages, but it's a rumour that I won't repeat here as I have no way of getting it verified. I know at least three people who have asked the suspected thief outright if they were the one who stole the art and received a flat denial. I do know that Bolland doesn't work with this person anymore though, for what it's worth, so you can read into that what you will. At the end of the day the facts, no matter how much someone wishes to dispute them, remain the same: Brian Bolland's art was stolen, or misappropriated, and he wants those pages back. There are collectors and dealers who know full well about this and believe that Bolland has no right to his own property, some will defend their stance with a passion borderlining on violence and there are some who will respond with simple apathy. Still, silence implies complicity really.

It's generally know that Bolland isn't the only person who's art was stolen over the years. There's some who'll claim that it's an old, tired argument, but every so often something happens that triggers the debate again. I remember speaking to Mike Esposito and mentioning that I'd bought three of his and Ross Andru's Flash pages. Mike was a bit disappointed and stated that neither he nor Ross ever saw the pages in question, so I offered them to him for free. He sighed and said he didn't want to bother. It bothered me though, having those pages in my possession, so I sold them on and bought a few pieces from Mike with the proceeds. I told Mike what I was doing, he was happy with that. I suspect that Mike was happier that he'd been given the right to turn the pages down.

Even today art theft happens, albeit in more subtle manners. I know of an artist who, a few years back, handed several hundred pages to a collector/fan who doubled as an 'art dealer'. The collector began to sell the pages via various on-line services and, to his credit, handed the proceeds to the artist. Sadly the artist passed away, as you'd expect the sales stopped until recently. The same collector is now selling off what's left, with nary a cent going to the artists estate. Even worse is that the sales would be considered to be free and clear by those purchasing the art - after all they have no idea what's happening.

What is the answer? Name and shame? That really doesn't work. A quick look into the history of collecting art will show you several people who have been named and shamed over the years. Some leave the hobby completely, some just ride it out and others merely keep their heads down, keep on selling and dealing, and wait for time to pass before they pop back up again. But back up they do pop, dealing in the same art and shouting loudly at anyone who dares question the veracity of the art. They'll scream blue bloody murder if someone takes a page from a table at a convention or steals a page via an on-line auction, but refuse the recognise the rights of the artists who's work the dealers have gotten wealthy from (and let's face it, some art dealers are fairly wealthy individuals).

Let's now call a spade a fucking shovel. If you own a 2000AD page and it's not signed in red ink at the bottom of the page, indeed if it's not signed, then you own stolen property. Contact Brian Bolland's art rep, or someone who can hook you up, and do the right thing - hand it back. I'm sure Bolland would hand you back something nice in return for a decent gesture. Thou shalt not steal, remember? And to those who claim the artists have no rights to stolen art? Karma is a bitch, and you will get yours in the end.

1 comment:

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

danny - great post. There has been a ton of artwork stolen over the years, and to see it defended makes my blood boil. I recently was made aware through a 3rd party that a John Ridgway page that i have had and loved for 15 years might not have been returned to John, so i fired off the email saying, "I'll return it to John if he wants it". It came back that it was legal so it eliminated some weirdness on my part, but given that there is no provence to art work, i wouldn't be surprised if at least one or two of the pieces in my collection weren't from a shady past.

I brought this up with Hertiage Auction house a few years ago after determining that the Jack Kirby signiture on my FF #20 page was fake. They tried to blow me off, but my point is that real money is changing hand here and it should be a big deal.